When it comes to exercise, few experts are more aware of its benefits than physical therapists. PTs often use movement to aid clients with limited mobility and help people heal from injuries.
Between stretching, strength training and aerobic exercise, movement can help people heal or regain strength — and the perks don’t stop there.
“There’s so many benefits of exercise on the body,” said Kaitlyn Colgan, a physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. “Something that I heard in physical therapy school that’s always stuck with me was one of my professors said, ‘If exercise was a drug, it would be the most prescribed medication in the world.’”
Exercise improves your cardiovascular system, bolsters your muscles and bones and positively affects your mental health, too. In other words, it’s really important — and it’s important to do right. Physical therapists say there are clear things you should (and should not) do during a workout.
Here’s what they personally avoid:
Static stretching before working out.
Warming up is a necessary first step for any workout, but Colgan said there’s one kind of warmup she avoids: static stretching.
“I think people often are like, I want to stretch before I work out, but just doing static stretching where you’re leaning into a stretch and holding for 30 seconds to a minute, that’s not necessarily going to be your best way to warm up,” Colgan said.
Instead, Colgan said a dynamic warmup or dynamic stretching is best before you jump into exercise. This can include body weight exercises like planks and push-ups or dynamic stretches like high knees or butt kicks.
“You’re moving yourself through the range of motion, trying to increase your range of motion and your flexibility but not necessarily holding at the end range,” Colgan said. This type of movement is better for before a workout.
Eating during the workout.
If you ever feel like chowing down on a protein bar during a workout, you should probably think twice, according to Tiffany Asp, a physical therapist with Stanford Health Care in California.
“When we’re working out, our autonomic nervous system is regulating that because workouts are controlled, healthy stress,” Asp said.
If you eat, you engage the rest and digest aspect of your autonomic nervous system, she said, which is not ideal during exercise. “It should be managing your fight or flight, which exercise is a version of that, just controlled,” Asp noted.
It’s worth noting that eating during certain exercises — like long bike rides and marathon training — is advisable, but for day-to-day workouts, Asp said to avoid snacking.
Doing the same workout over and over.
“The biggest thing during a workout that I try to be cognizant of is not doing the same thing every single time,” Colgan said.
While working out in any capacity is good, it’s best for your body to have a mix of strength training and aerobic exercise to reap the full benefits.
“Getting a variation of those will give you more of the full scope of benefits of generalized exercise for the body,” Colgan said.
To achieve this, Colgan said she’ll do a mix of workout classes and working out with friends to avoid falling into a routine of doing the same exercises time and time again. You can find all kinds of exercise videos on YouTube, or speak to fitness trainers in your area about new workouts.
Plus, it’s safer to mix up your workout, too. “Doing the same thing over and over can lead to overtraining, which can cause injury down the line,” Colgan explained.
Not having an exercise plan.
According to Asp, depending on the type of exercise you’re doing, you should have a workout plan before you start your training. This could mean saving a “workout stack” in the Peloton app, lining up workout videos on YouTube, or writing down the moves you want to include in your strength workout before jumping in.
Without a plan, you can fall victim to overtraining or undertraining, and both of these things can lead to injury, Asp said.
What’s more, not having a workout plan often leads to an unfocused workout — most people have probably had the experience of going into a workout with the goal of exercising for an hour but found themselves stopping short because they ran out of exercise ideas. Setting a plan ahead of time can help combat that issue.
Having a poor perspective on exercise.
The way you think about exercise matters, Asp said. So, if you think of your walk as “just a walk instead of a run because you’re tired” as opposed to a “heart-pumping walk,” your body may actually react differently.
In fact, Asp said a study found that housekeepers who were told that cleaning counted as exercise experienced a decrease in blood pressure, weight and more compared to housekeepers who were not told that cleaning was exercise.
“So, having the perception that [the exercise] you are doing is beneficial to you no matter what it is … and to perceive that as exercise actually will be beneficial to you,” Asp said.
If you do look at a walk as “just a walk” or convince yourself that gardening isn’t enough exercise, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
“Your pre-perceptions may have taken away … some of that benefit that you could have,” she added.
Whatever you do, don’t discount the benefits of exercise.
“I think we undercut the benefits of exercise and you think of, like, pharmacology as the main forms of medicine that’s going to change people’s health and wellness, but it’s really exercise,” Asp said.
Study after study has shown that exercise can change morbidity and improve health outcomes, ranging from heart health to stress relief.
And exercise looks different for everyone. Some folks may enjoy cycling, while others enjoy gardening and others enjoy Pilates. As long as it keeps you active, you’re making the right choice.
“I just think learning to enjoy exercise is really important because it will increase habitual maintenance of that exercise program because your intrinsic rewards are higher-value than maybe someone saying, ‘Oh, good job,’” Asp said.
To find what kind of exercise you truly enjoy, try different workouts. Once you find what’s enjoyable for you, you’ll have an easier time going back to it ― and you’ll build a habit and reap the benefits.